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Pruritus (Itchiness) in Cats

By: Dr. Mark Thompson

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Related Diseases

Many skin diseases can cause or can contribute to pruritus. Every cat has a threshold of pruritus. When the nerves of the skin are stimulated by mediators of inflammation to a level below that threshold, the cat will not scratch. Scratching begins when the stimulation exceeds that threshold. It is common to see cats with two or more skin conditions that cause pruritus concurrently. For example, a cat with a mild allergy to house dust mites may be below the threshold but may begin to scratch severely when he becomes infested with fleas.

Allergic Skin Diseases

  • Flea allergy is the most common allergic skin disease in the United States. Cats with flea allergy tend to scratch their back ends leading to lesions on the rump, hind legs, tail and belly. Since it takes just one flea to make the cat react, the presence of fleas on the cat may be minimal to absent.

  • Atopy is a reaction to airborne allergens such as pollens, house dust, house dust mites and molds. Cats with atopy tend to scratch their ears and face and tend to chew and lick at their feet. The condition is often worse during summer months when pollen and mold levels are increased.

  • Food allergy is a reaction to one or more ingredients in their food. These cats tend to scratch in the same places as those with atopy.

  • Insect allergies (insect bite hypersensitivity) are less common than other allergies. Lesions are evident in areas where insects such as mosquitoes are likely to bite (bridge of nose, ears).

  • Contact allergy is a reaction to an irritant that touches the skin, often the belly or chest. Allergies of this type are rare.

    Parasitic Skin Diseases

  • Scabies is an intensely pruritic skin condition caused by the sarcoptic mange mite. Lesions are seen on the ears, elbows and hocks (ankles).

  • Demodectic mange is caused by the demodex mite. This is usually a disease of young cats and causes dramatic hair loss and dermatitis. This disease is often not pruritic, but can lead to a secondary bacterial infection of the skin (pyoderma) which may be itchy.

  • Fleas can cause pruritus in cats that are not flea allergic, although the degree of pruritus is less severe.

  • Cheyletiellosis is an itchy skin condition caused by the cheyletiella mite. Lesions are usually most dramatic along the top of the back. These mites are sometimes visible to the naked eye as small, moving, white specks, hence the name "walking dandruff mite".

  • Lice are small insects that are easily seen with the naked eye that can cause pruritus.

  • Ear mites cause itching of the ears in cats and can sometimes cause itching elsewhere on the body.

    There are many other causes of pruritus, including secondary bacterial skin infections (pyoderma) and secondary yeast infections.

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